While most modern divers favor a dive computer, some still like the anachronistic charm of a mechanical watch while taking to the deep. Perhaps to feel some connection with a simpler time, or to serve as a backup to their dive computer, or sometimes because they just love watches. Either way, most of those who choose to double wrist with a mechanical watch are content to strap on a rugged diver with a standard timing bezel and call it a day. That said, sometimes a bezel just doesn’t suffice. Sometimes one needs to go bigger, bolder, and push the limits of mechanical dive watches. Enter the Blancpain X Fathoms reference 5018-1230-64A, perhaps the most complicated purpose-built dive watch ever crafted, from one of the most storied brands in watchmaking.
Blancpain is one of the oldest watch brands in the world, with its origins dating back to 1735. In the early 1900s, they partnered with British watchmaker John Harwood to sell the industry’s first automatic watches. That’s a significant milestone on its own, however their real “claim to fame” came in 1953, they launched the Fifty Fathoms in partnership with the French combat diving corps. The first automatic dive watch, it was named for the maximum depth a diver at the time could descend using an oxygen mix in the tank.
The Fifty Fathoms is an icon in the dive watch category, though it seems to be perpetually stuck hiding in the Rolex Submariner’s shadow. For the record the Fifty Fathoms launched in 1953 (and the Sub came a year later), and despite perhaps losing ground in popular culture, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms has been used by serious divers for decades—among them Jacques Cousteau and countless military branches. Through the years, the Fifty Fathoms has seen countless iterations—including the Tribute to Fifty Fathoms MilSpec and the Bathyscaphe—but none more advanced or purpose-driven as the Blancpain X Fathoms we’re looking at today.
The Blancapin X Fathoms is a true behemoth, as its satin-brushed titanium case clocks in at a whopping 55.65mm in diameter and 24mm in height. This is surely one of the largest watches in the realm of haute horology, though given its size one would expect a more significant water resistance rating than 300m (more on that in a second). Aside from the logo on the dial (and between both sets of lugs), the only thing that provides an inkling of Blancpain aesthetics is its convex sapphire bezel.
Moving to the dial, in addition to a three-hand time display (adjusted with the 3 o’clock crown), the watch features two depth scales. In light blue at the periphery is a 15m depth gauge—once 15m is reached, it will remain at that reading. Coming in, we find the 90m depth scale (cleverly using the ‘9’ from the time display for the ‘90’), which has an orange hand to display current depth and a red hand to display maximum depth. The maximum depth memory can be reset using the pusher at 8 o’clock, which is protected to avoid accidently activation. Finally, at between 10 and 11 on the dial is a retrograde 5-minute decompression timer, activated by the crown at 10 o’clock. This mechanical depth gauge is a complex mechanical device, and one who is in part responsible for the 24mm thickness of the Blancpain X Fathoms.
All of the scales and dial elements (save for the brand and model name) are applied in radiant Super-LumiNova™ for excellent visibility in all conditions. The integrated manta ray-inspired rubber strap (with a similarly inspired buckle) has 14 points of articulation to make it shockingly comfortable on the wrist. It’s common for watches with this many complications, colors, and shapes to become unreadable or simply unattractive, but Blancpain has managed to provide five different readouts without sacrificing legibility or good taste.
The mechanical wizardry behind the dial is the Blancpain Reference 9918b, which is based on the brand’s 1315 movement, found in many of the other Fifty Fathoms models. Featuring 411 individual components (nearly twice that of its base movement), including 48 jewels, the automatic 9918b beats at 28,800vph and has three barrels allowing for a 5-day power reserve. While not visible through the caseback, Blancpain has nevertheless added a bit of class by adding polished chamfers to the movement plates.
The horological star, however, is the depth gauge. Three openings on the case back allow water pressure to deform a membrane made from a patented zirconium-based alloy exclusive to Blancpain. As the membrane deforms it applies pressure to a finger sensor coupled to a rack and pinion system, eventually translating the membrane’s changes into the depth readouts on the dial. What’s more, the initial 15m gauge has been calibrated so precisely it is accurate to +/- 30cm.
Versus the Competition
There are exceptionally few watches with proper mechanical depth gauges, and even fewer in the realm of the Blancpain X Fathoms. If the depth gauge is the main attraction, there simply aren’t many other choices. Jaeger-LeCoultre makes it’s Master Compressor Diving Pro Geographic, which comes in a slightly more wearable 46mm case but, despite not having as many indicators and lacking a decompression counter, is less legible than the Blancpain X Fathoms. There’s also the IWC Deep Three, which also features current and maximum depth readouts, but is capped at 60m and 50m, respectively. The bottom line is there is no substitute for the mechanical prowess of the Blancpain X Fathoms. That said, if the depth gauge and other features are not of paramount importance, and the discerning diver is simply seeking a world-class dive watch from a world-class watchmaker, one cannot go wrong with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore.
This watch says two things, very clearly, about its wearer: he or she is serious about diving, and he or she is serious about watches. Despite its practical application, there is an undeniable elegance to the X Fathoms lacking in other ultra dive watches, which usually pair their outrageous specs with blocky, utilitarian cases. The smooth titanium case, round sapphire bezel, and articulating manta ray strap convey a sense of class and refinement in spite of its specs and dimensions. This watch is for the dead serious diver that values practicality, polish, and heritage.
The Blancpain X Fathoms is a mechanical marvel of a dive watch. No other mechanical dive watch does what it does, and very few look as good while trying. The undeniable appeal is its ability to look exceptional while also being exceptional.